In a delightful paradox, this intriguing exhibition shows Joanne Julian crackling with the imaginative intensity of a lightning bolt, but somehow doing so continuously over a period of seven years rather than for a brief moment. Presumably this feat is the result of the artist’s having mastered multiple disciplines and media over the course of several decades. Taken as a whole, “Defying Darkness” is an impressive achievement, blending the disparate skills of printmaking, botanical and avian illustration, Zen Buddhist ink painting, calligraphy, and abstract composition into 32 distinctive works that nevertheless each bear the imprint of a single vision. The show is divided into four principal sections: “Skies,” “Birds and Feathers,” “Botanicals,” and “Bugs.” In monotypes such as the monumental Rain (2010), Julian reverses the expected polarity of images of the sky, allowing a deep darkness to dominate the middle two thirds of the picture. It’s not a new approach to creating negative space, but in Julian’s work the deployment of black attains an almost metaphysical grandeur. In a quote from the exhibition’s catalogue essay by Meher McArthur, Julian explains that she prefers “the depth of a dark tone rather than the flatness of a white surface.” From a compositional standpoint, these large areas of dense blackness offer the artist an arresting way of extending the imaginary space described within the image beyond the edges of the paper. In Rain, for example, one’s experience of the delicately rendered clouds at the top and bottom of the sheet, and of the glistening lines of precipitation that emanate from them, is sharply enhanced by the feeling of deep space implied by the intervening night sky.
No account of Julian’s work would be complete without mentioning the exquisite detail she lavishes on representing feathers, leaves, and scales. In fact, the sweeping arcs that give feathers their distinctive form are at least as central to Julian’s aesthetic as the domination of black. Using graphite and Prismacolor, she articulates their structure in a way that expresses their function—layers of graceful arcs float or fly through the dimensional space of more than half of the works. Julian’s ability to capture energy and movement reaches its peak in a group of works that employ ravens as core elements in their imagery. The earlier pieces from 2010 show these birds bursting into elegant splatters of black ink. In The Confrontation (2016), two ravens face off in a whirling mid-air battle. By taking these common creatures and magnifying their physicality, Julian reframes the centuries old confrontation between life and art.